OPINION: Short's bombshell won't knock Blair off course

You can judge the depth of a government crisis by who Alastair Campbell persuades to go on to the Today programme to defend his boss.

The threat of resignation from a cabinet minister should have brought out someone of the stature of Gordon Brown to defend Tony Blair, yet all Campbell could muster was Jack Cunningham. I hadn't even realised that 'junket' Jack was still an MP. He must have been on one hell of a trip for the last few years.

It could be that Downing Street didn't think that Clare Short threatening to quit was all that important. The International Development Secretary does, after all, have a track record of resignations, but this time she has virtually the whole of the Labour Party behind her and the man to tell us that is not some loony lefty, but ex-Armed Forces Minister and Gordon Brown friend Doug Henderson.

The Short statement certainly caught Downing Street by surprise because their initial 'line to take' was so feeble. 'She should have told Blair first' was just about the most pathetic line of attack I've ever heard.

Even worse was the attempt to undermine Short by putting up a few token women to attack her. Bridgett Prentice hasn't been seen on TV since Blair sacked her in the first parliament - Campbell must have been desperate.

The most interesting thing about Short's outburst was that it was clearly pre-planned and designed to do maximum damage to Blair, in whom she has lost all trust. The reason for that is simple: Blair has been telling her one thing in private and then getting the Downing Street spin machine to do and say the opposite. There is nothing more likely to get Short riled than spin doctors - at least ones acting for Blair. I may have managed to get on well with Short but that's probably because I was working for her protector Gordon Brown.

Even before Short's bombshell half-a-dozen parliamentary private secretaries had threatened to resign, and one had. Most of us may not have heard of any of these people, but the significance is that they are all MPs on the first rung of the ministerial career ladder and were prepared to end their whole political future by speaking out.

The Short episode may have grabbed the headlines this week but it won't affect the vote at the Security Council. Blair may be angry at Short, not for what she said but because it knocked his efforts to win the vote by moving the deadline and generally being more conciliatory off the front pages.

Blair knows he is still losing the propaganda war and Short's intervention will not have helped. There is nothing worse than a divided party, as the Tories know, and Blair's message to the country would have far more authority if people were unaware that he doesn't have the support of his party.

At the end of the day though, all the spinning and Labour revolts won't matter a jot if Blair manages to win a majority vote on the second resolution.

A positive vote would be a huge propaganda victory and my guess is that he already knows he will win the slim majority needed. Blair is not the sort of person to commit political suicide.

Blair's future as Prime Minister would be on the line if he failed to win that majority because there is little doubt that many MPs have only continued their support for him on the basis of there being a second resolution. With a second resolution - even with a French veto - Blair would go into war with public support strengthened and even further support once the troops are in action.

He is not known as 'Teflon Tony' for nothing.

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